Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama. PHOTO FROM RAMA'S FACEBOOK PAGE
Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama. PHOTO FROM RAMA'S FACEBOOK PAGE

CEBU City's attempt to relax the rules on the wearing of face masks draws attention to an attribute needed in policymaking. That is, the crafting and tweaking of policies should keep pace with how quickly situations change. We remain firm in the belief that science, or more specifically medical expertise, should take the lead in devising the policies concerning Covid-19. But people struggle to understand why they take so long to adjust to developments.

Perhaps officials in Cebu have grown impatient with the national government, more specifically the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. Last week, Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama issued an executive order making the wearing of face masks in open spaces optional. But he later delayed the implementation of the order after talking to Secretary Benjamin "Benhur" Abalos Jr. of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Abalos promised the mayor that he would bring up the need to review the health protocols with the task force.

Mr. Abalos sounded inclined to allow Mayor Rama's executive order. The secretary said in a statement: "In fact, I am going to even further suggest to make Cebu City the pilot implementer of this measure since the city has always been first in espousing non-masking policies outdoors for the ease and benefit of its people amid the pandemic."

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The point in delaying the new order in Cebu seems to be about "harmonizing existing laws and policies" regarding the lingering pandemic. The problem is that the situation is not uniform across the country. Also, the Philippines has opened up its borders to tourists and foreign travelers, including those who come from countries where wearing face masks are no longer required. And doing so has not caused a spike in new or imported Covid-19 cases.

Indeed, a review of health protocols seems overdue. Earlier in June, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn "Gwen" Garcia clashed with national health authorities when she issued an executive order that allowed people not to wear face masks in open areas, like beaches and mountain trails. Her decision seemed sensible then, and so does the similar order issued by Cebu City.

Perhaps, the national government should listen more to local officials. They should consider giving them more discretion in setting health guidelines for their respective areas of concern.

After all, Covid-19 cases seem to be under control now, and hospitals are no longer overwhelmed. The vaccination rate is nearing the 70-percent target believed to be needed to reach herd immunity and inoculations are continuing.

Pragmatic Singapore

Anyone doubting the wisdom of not requiring face masks should look at Singapore. Last week, authorities there implemented what Cebu City just tried to do — make face masks optional. The exception was for people taking public transportation and when in health care facilities, like hospitals and nursing homes. The health ministry there also recommended that the elderly and people with compromised immune systems should continue wearing face masks in crowded indoor settings. For everyone else, including students in schools, wearing a face mask is optional.

Even then, 5 out of 10 Singaporeans still prefer to wear face masks, at least for now, according to reports. The point is that people there can choose what is best for themselves. There may be a lesson there for health policymakers here.

Also, Singapore is not the first country to relax health protocols. In some European countries, for instance, face masks are only required indoors. That has been the practice for some time now, and yet there has been no significant surge in cases.

To wait until Covid-19 is completely gone seems unnecessary and impractical. Besides, many believe that the coronavirus will not go away soon, and that people just have to live with it.

If that is correct, then the new priority perhaps should be to improve vaccination rates. More should be convinced to take booster shots, which may be needed annually to fend off new variants.

As said earlier, sound policies should be based on science, not on what is popular or what others are doing. But the assumption there is that policymakers are responsive to the fluctuating intensity of the health threat.